Saturday, November 30, 2019


Not long ago a for sale ad appeared on the local buy, sale, trade page on Facebook, Baraga County Stuff for Sale (No Clothes) that kind of stood out. I tend to refer to the page as Baraga County Shit for Sale because it's like an Internet version of Tradio -- did you guys know local radio stations still do Tradio? The Iron River, Michigan, station calls its program "Telephone Time," but it's Tradio. The S.O. and I catch it occasionally when we're driving down to V.A. hospital in Iron Mountain. People call in looking to buy, sell, or trade some really strange stuff, including during gardening season actual shit (horse or cow manure)

But I digress. The ad that caught my eye was for candles made utilizing old bottles. I was immediately reminded of the tall prayer candles you find in the Mexican foods section of some supermarkets. There is, you will note, one significant difference. Instead of having a prayer to some saint or the Holy Mother printed on them, these candles are apparently hoping to party. I found myself thinking, wow, the person who crafted those really likes his or her vodka. I mean, who wants to advertise to the whole world they drink that much?

Little did I know I was about to stumble across something that was even more of a tribute to tippling. I belong to a quilters' group on Facebook. People post pictures of their various projects, share patterns, and talk about quilting. Did you know there's such a thing as a Crown Royal quilt? That's not the pattern -- it's the material. People make quilts from Crown Royal bags. If I hadn't seen multiple photos, I'd have thought the whole concept was a joke.

Because, again, wow. It's a lot of work to cut apart the bags, figure out placement, and then sew them back together into a quilt top. And not just any size quilt -- the favorite (going by the comments) is a queen size. That is not a small quilt. The Crown Royal quilters make the Grey Goose vodka candles person look like a piker in the future friend of Bill category. A dozen or so vodka bottles? Pshaw. That's nothing. How about a quilt top pieced from 160 -- yes, one hundred and sixty -- Crown Royal bags? The maker may not have a functioning liver by the time he or she is done, but by God he or she will sleep in style.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Community organizations and how not to kill them

Someone asked me recently for advice, help, whatever regarding a local community group. It has the usual issues: stagnant leadership, low volunteer numbers, the classic everyone says they want various actions or events but no one is willing to step up and assume actual responsibility. I used to be involved with the organization so, yes, I had thoughts. I definitely had thoughts, including a few about why I'm no longer involved.

Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a Girl Scout leader, and not just a leader. I was so into being a leader that I even owned a uniform (and would occasionally embarrass my kids by wearing it in public). In addition to being a regular troop leader, I volunteered to become a trainer. Back in the '70s Peninsula Waters Girl Scout Council sponsored workshops (no doubt they still do) that focused on helping leaders be better leaders and encouraging more volunteer involvement. The key points stuck with me. I will actually bullet point them:
  • Everyone's reason for volunteering is different
  • Everyone's contribution is important, no matter how small
  • Always thank people, never criticize, either behind their backs or to their face
  • There will always be people who will complain no matter what a group does
  • Trying to "guilt" people into helping never works
First, motivations. Why do people become involved in an organization?
  1. They support the mission, whether it's preserving local history, maintaining a community building, or doing charitable work. 
  2. They enjoy the tasks involved. For example, people who like children will volunteer to help youth groups -- which can be a two-fer. They like being around the kids and they support the group's mission. 
  3. They like the other people in the organization and enjoy spending time with them. If you ask people why they joined a book club or a historical society or began attending a church, it's almost always because one or more of their friends invited them. 
Second, contributions. None of us know what's going on in another person's life. Things might look fine to an outside observer, but we can never really know what their reality is like when no one is watching. Asking someone to contribute to a bake sale table might be a financial stretch if they're relying on the Community Action Agency food distributions or the SNAP program, options most people prefer not to talk about with casual acquaintances. Someone can have health issues that prevent them doing anything involving prolonged standing, like being a museum docent. You never know. So when someone says "I'm sorry, I can't do that but I can do this" you thank them for the package of napkins while trying not to think about the lifetime supply of napkins already stashed in the storage cabinet. Maybe this year the person couldn't do what you hoped, but if you're nice next time around they might be in a better position and can make a larger or more useful contribution. At the very least, they may recommend your group to others even if they can't help themselves.

Third, criticisms and verbal gaffes. You've really got to watch your mouth. One ill-timed sentence and you've lost a member or a donor forever. This is especially true if you're in a leadership position. I've witnessed a couple jaw-dropping gaffes that resulted in people either disappearing over the horizon forever or close to it.  If other members of your group manage to violate this rule, you need to do damage control. When someone says stuff like "I'll rejoin when <insert name of clueless geezer here> is dead," you know who in your membership opened mouth and inserted foot, probably well past the knee.

One of my personal favorites when it comes to truly fucking up and insulting someone big time involved a group where some turnover in leadership was happening. This was a Very Good Thing, but naturally one of the old coots (the outgoing leadership) had to screw things up. An annual event was coming up, a different person than usual volunteered to take care of obtaining supplies, and everyone seemed fine with it. Then a few days before the event the person who had done it in previous years starts calling people to announce they* had the supplies because they happened to be in town and had asked at the usual vendor if the new volunteer had picked up anything yet. Answer: No. So they took it upon themselves to buy the supplies right then and there.

Well, the vendor was one of three locally, there was never a requirement that any specific one had to be used, so for all the meddling member knew the new person had shopped someplace else and everything was fine. If they aren't sure, then go ask in person or find a phone and call (this was before cell phones). The old person did neither, just assumed the new volunteer was incompetent because they hadn't shopped where the old person had shopped in the past, and walked all over them. Even worse, the old person ran their mouth. Big time. Told half the county how they had saved the event from certain disaster. And then told and retold the story for years until it became part of their family folklore, the Year Their Parent Saved the event. And now that person's children repeat the story. It's become the insult that never stops. Holy fuck. The stupid, it burns.

Fourth, complainers. One of the things emphasized at various trainings was that in a theoretical population of 100 people you'll have a small percentage (4 or 5) willing to be leaders or assume positions of responsibility (president, treasurer), 20 to 30 percent willing to help if they don't have to be decision makers, 50 to 60 percent will support you indirectly (come to a community event, buy raffle tickets, visit your museum), and 5 percent will trash talk everything the group and the people in it do. These people will never be happy. If you're trying to preserve a historic building, they'll denigrate its history, tell you it's a useless effort, and someone should just torch it. If you're involved with a youth group, it'll be you're wasting your time, it's up to the parents and the schools, don't bother. No matter what anyone tries to do, there will be people who radiate negativity. Ignore them.

Fifth, guilt tripping. It doesn't work. It just pisses people off. Try to guilt trip someone into helping with anything and odds are they're going to walk away and not look back. If it's a relative or close friend, you may think you've succeeded because they'll help occasionally, but all you're doing is building a well of resentment that will eventually come back to drown you. Call it karma or call it payback. Either way, it's a bitch.

Since going through the Girl Scout training, I've learned more about organizations. A lot more. I hadn't planned on it, but I wound up writing a doctoral dissertation that, depending on your perspective, is either a history of engineering or an in-depth study of organizational sociology. The Piled-Higher-and-Deeper is in Science and Technology Studies (interdisciplinary history, sociology, and philosophy) so I guess it can be either. Or maybe a treatise of philosophy of knowledge and professionalism. Organizational behavior in any case.

The document, Brothers Professionally and Socially: The Rise of Local Engineering Societies During the Gilded Age, focused on what in retrospect feels like a gazillion local engineering societies, some of which are still around and some of which died lingering painful deaths. Because I had sociologists on my committee, I had to do a considerable amount of data crunching. I learned how to use statistical analysis software designed specifically for the social sciences. I knew statistics before (2 quarters at MTU as an undergrad) but by the time I finished counting engineers I really knew statistics. I even managed to pass myself off as a quantoid. The sociologists were happy. But what was the bottom line after all the data crunching? What ground-breaking conclusions did I reach after risking carpal tunnel doing data entry and creating multiple tables?

Democracy matters. Turnover matters. Stagnant organizations die. Every voluntary organization starts off fired up with enthusiasm. That initial enthusiasm will not sustain a group forever. It has to be renewed regularly. Want to guarantee your organization, whether it's a church congregation, a fraternal organization, or a local historical society, ends up taking the proverbial dirt nap? Encourage stagnation. Allow the same people to hold the same offices indefinitely.

This isn't exactly ground-breaking. It's actually such a classic in organizational sociology that it has a name: The Problem of Generations. You get someone in office, there's no provision in the by-laws that sets term limits, and that person ends up either clinging to his or her office like a barnacle on a ship bottom or the membership gets comfortable with assuming that person will never die. The organization shrinks because nonmembers see no point in joining, old ones age out, and younger members leave. Why should they? Either President-for-Life has everything under control (no need for new members) or PfL is so resistant to new ideas that people figure why bother? They've got ideas but when the person who's been there forever shoots them down, they walk away.

Finally, and this was just a life lesson, the world is full of people who have no clue what the word "volunteer" means. For whatever reason, they are incapable of imagining anyone investing time and energy in anything if they aren't getting paid. Back when I was a Girl Scout leader, there were always a few parents who wanted to know how much the leaders got paid. They could not believe we were willing to spend time with their kids and not get compensated for it (which kind of tells you something about the low opinion they had of their own spawn if they believed people needed bribes to put up with them). When the S.O.and I volunteer as campground hosts at various state and federal parks there are always campers who have a hard time believing we're doing it when the only compensation is being at the park. I run into people all the time who think I get paid to be at the museum. Nope, the museum is 100% volunteer**. The idea that some tasks are intrinsically rewarding without there being a cash benefit is one some people will never understand.

*The editor in me cringes at the use of "they" as a singular pronoun, but it is less awkward than he/she. Maybe. 

**The budget would have to have more digits in it to afford an actual paid manager or other staff. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

I hate fake surveys

As if listening to the impeachment hearing yesterday wasn't depressing enough, this morning the first item in my email was a thinly disguised fund-raising plea from the Democratic National Committee. It was masquerading as a poll and asked if the most hated woman in American (aka Hillary Clinton) should jump into the Presidential race. Unfortunately, none of the choices listed included "No Fucking Way!!"

I know Putin is scared silly by her and she would be a lot better than the Current Occupant, but I also know she ran a horrible campaign last time, neither she or her minions want to admit she ran a horrible campaign, and if past performance is any indicator of future results. . . Everyone on her team was so imbued with the belief that it was her turn that they either totally ignored or took for granted states and groups they really needed to pay attention to, like Michigan and Wisconsin and people of faith. I wonder how many religious voters even knew Hillary is a Methodist and is personally pretty devout? I'd guess zero to none.

In any case, from the discussions I've read and interview clips I've seen, she still hasn't figured out that it wasn't just Russian meddling that caused her to lose. She needs to look in the mirror more.

I wonder if she's working on becoming the Harold Stassen of the 21st century?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Pulitzer Project: Beloved

This one was a surprise. I'd been hearing about it for years, another one of those novels by an African-American author that gets touted as seminal, ground breaking, etc., the sort of breathless praise that always has me wondering just how bad the book is going to be. A lot of the praise for authors of color, whether they're Asian, Native American, African American, or something else, tends to have an undertone of implicit racism and condescension that reminds me of the praise for a dancing bear: there's no expectation that the bear will be good at dancing. Nope, the praise comes because the observer is amazed the bear can dance at all.

Which is why after having the unpleasant experience of trying to read The Color Purple I was not expecting much from Beloved. Toni Morrison was a woman of color; the book had been subject to huge amounts of praise; ergo, the book was probably going to suck. I was wrong.

So are a lot of the comments and reviews I've read that spent way too much time obsessing about one aspect of the book -- infanticide -- and not enough on the book as a whole. The infanticide is one reason I never had much interest in reading Beloved until it came up on the Pulitzer list. It's as though readers became obsessed with the fact a mother killed her toddler and ignored everything else that's going on in the novel. When all that ever gets mentioned about a book is that the main character killed her baby you do find yourself wondering why you should bother reading it.

Granted, the infanticide is a key element, one that's a pivot point for several narrative threads, but it's not the only element just like the mother, Sethe, isn't the only character. There's her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. Her surviving daughter, Denver. A man, Paul D, who was a field hand at the same Kentucky farm Sethe escaped from shortly before the Civil War.

Sethe was born into slavery in Virginia. She thinks about her mother and remembers how she never really knew her. Her mother was a field hand and had been forced to continue working in the fields after Sethe was born; she wasn't even able to nurse her. That task was done by another woman who was also a wet nurse to the white babies on the plantation. Sethe remembers talking with Baby Suggs. Baby tells her she had a total of 8 children, but the only one she was allowed to keep, to have stay with her and watch grow to adulthood, marry, and have children of his own was her youngest, Halle.

Beloved moves around in time as various characters remember the past. Sethe and Paul D recall what life was like at Sweet Home (the farm in Kentucky) before and after the owner, Mr. Garner, died. Garner had been a "good" slave owner. He gave the men a fair amount of personal freedom, including allowing them to use guns to hunt wild game, and didn't believe in the extreme and cruel forms of discipline common throughout the slave states. And then he died. His widow is forced to ask her husband's brother-in-law to take over managing the farm. If Garner was on the good end of the spectrum for slave owners, the brother-in-law is at the other extreme. No one had talked about going North to freedom before the brother-in-law arrived, but it doesn't take long for him to be in charge and running away, even with the risks it entails of death or mutilation if caught, looks a lot better than staying.

The novel is loosely set between the early 1850s and the late 1860s in southern Ohio on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Mr. Garner had allowed Halle to rent himself out to buy his mother's freedom; she moved across the river and leased a house from an abolitionist family. That house is where Sethe and her children live after they've escaped from Kentucky, and it's where Sethe is living when Paul D finds her after he's spent 18 years moving around the country, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. For a few years after Baby Suggs moved in the house was seen as being a happy house where everyone was welcome. After Sethe kills her toddler daughter to prevent her from being taken back into Kentucky, though, the atmosphere changes.

I have seen Beloved described as a ghost story. It is, and it isn't. It is, however, a really nice example of magical realism. What's real? What isn't? Can anyone's memories be trusted? Is the spirit of a dead toddler truly haunting the house where she died or have Baby and Sethe convinced themselves that she must be?  The narrative shifts back and forth, from one person's perspective to another's, from the present to the past and back again. Some sections have an ethereal quality as though the person is remembering or living a dream; others are clear descriptions. Is the mysterious young woman who shows up near their house really the living embodiment of the dead toddler or is she someone or something else? Is she a revenant, a wandering spirit, or simply a real woman on whom other people are projecting their hopes and fears? The author leaves that possibility open with a passing reference to a colored woman who had been kept locked up, isolated, in a cabin by some man for most of her life. That woman had disappeared about the same time Sethe found the stranger.

Morrison does a nice job of describing the horrors of slavery, the physical abuse, while also touching on the psychological. If you were a slave you didn't even have the dignity of keeping the name your mother may have given you -- at one point Baby Suggs wonders why Mrs. Garner always calls her "Judy." Turns out that was what was on the bill of sale. On paper her name had become Judy Whitlow, Whitlow being the person who sold her. Four of the field hands are all named Paul, which is why Paul D is Paul D. The D is to differentiate him from the other three.

So where does Beloved rank on the usual scale? Somewhere between a 9 and a 10. This book actually deserved the awards it received. The prose is lyrical, the fabulism mixed with just enough grounded in reality details to keep you wondering what's real and what's imagined, the ghost may or may not exist. This is a book I'd recommend to anyone who wanted to read some good writing. It's another one where the subject matter is grim, but the reading never feels forced.

Small spoiler: despite the grimness, it does end on a slightly upbeat note. Not a classic happy ending, but also not totally depressing.

Next up on the list: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler. Once again, it's going to be an Interlibrary Loan request.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Weirdest defense I've heard in a long time

I was listening to the impeachment hearings off and on yesterday. Admittedly, I didn't hear the entire thing, but as far as I could tell the Republican defense of President Trump's behavior comes down to:

  • 1. Yes, there was an attempt to do something sleazy, but it didn't work so the attempt doesn't count;
  • 2. Yes, President Trump would like to get some dirt on the Bidens but so far all he's got are rumors so it doesn't count; and
  • 3. It's all Obama's fault.

Holy wah. Odds are because the Senate has a Republican majority it doesn't matter much what the House hearings decide, i.e., just how many counts of impeachable offenses they come up with, because Moscow Mitch will make sure none of them stick. Nonetheless, is this the image they really want to project going into 2020 -- the President tried to commit a crime (extortion) but because he's an incompetent doofus it doesn't count? Vote for Trump, the man who's too stupid to know what he's doing?

I do find myself wondering just how many counts the Democrats will decide to pursue. People in general don't seem to realize it, but Trump manages to do something that's technically an impeachable offense on almost a daily basis. You know, despite the phrasing about "high crimes and misdemeanors," an impeachable offense doesn't have to be criminal. It just has to be something that demonstrates you're unfit to hold office.

Abusing the power of the presidency for personal gain, for example, might not qualify as a crime in the same way encouraging a burglary did back in the days of Watergate, but openly promoting your son's book so he'll sell more copies is certainly an abuse of power. Encouraging people to patronize his resorts is an abuse of power. Inciting his supporters to commit violent acts is both an abuse of power and possibly criminal. Trump has such a bad habit of opening his mouth, babbling incoherently, and then inserting his foot that if the Democrats really want to they can come up with a list of counts that will run longer than a typical CVS drugstore receipt. Keep in mind that one reason (9 counts worth) that Andrew Johnson wound up impeached was he fired a cabinet secretary Congress thought he should keep. Not a crime, but it pissed enough Congress critters off that Johnson almost wound up out of office.

Heck, Trump doesn't even have to open his mouth. All he has to do is continue tweeting out stupid stuff while in the john in the wee hours of the morning.

But, circling back to the three approaches the Republicans seem to be taking (extortion attempt failed, Trump's so dumb he shouldn't be held accountable, and it's the Obama administration's fault), the last one amused me the most. That's the fallback for every Trump supporter, just like it is for Trump himself. The only thing missing was an explicit reference to Hillary's emails.

I hadn't planned to listen to much of the hearings, but after listening to Daniel Goldman's skillful questioning compared with the poor sap (Steve Castor) laboring for the Republicans I may have changed my mind.  Goldman is good; he was a prosecutor targeting mobsters and Wall Street cheats. He knows how to craft questions. Castor, on the other hand, had obviously been instructed by his Republican bosses to hammer the talking points (Biden, Biden, Biden), which is why I was a bit surprised we weren't treated to Hillary's private server. Poor bastard. Just how many times can you claim the Democrats did something nefarious in the 2016 election when the Democrats lost?

There is actually a distinct contradiction there, the usual cognitive dissonance from the right that we've all come to expect: Trump's bad behavior a few months ago doesn't count because it didn't work, but it's real important to investigate something that might have happened three years ago and failed. How do they manage to push two mutually exclusive ideas without their heads exploding?

In any case, I got the impression that between them Daniel Goldman and Adam Schiff have come close to putting some of the dumber Republicans through the rhetorical equivalent of a wood chipper. And this was just the first day.